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  • Writer's pictureKaren Onail

Is it time to Retire?

Fall of 2013, Deuce, my little buddy and I officially became a Certified Therapy Dog Team. Deuce was the ripe ol' age of 18 months old. At the time he was one of the youngest dogs to ever graduate with the group we decided to join.

We hit the ground running on visits, bringing smiles to the young, old and everyone in between. We started with home visits and a day care for homeless children under the age of 5. From there we ventured into Childrens Hospital, Nursing Homes, Rehab Centers and Senior living apartment complexes. Deuce soon chose where he wanted to "work" .

See that's the part of being a therapy dog team that I find the most amazing and the hardest to explain to new teams starting out. Try every area for a few months. Watch your dog's reactions, how they begin to interact or not interact. Pay attention to how they settle into a visit, where they are most comfortable at. I had my own goals and plans, but Deuce had something else in store for us.

A year into our journey, I realized that Deuce had chosen his career field. He was and is most attentive, most calm and brings out the best conversations from hospice patients that are nearing the end of life on earth.

Therapy dogs, truly do understand, I suppose dogs in general understand way more than we give them credit for. During our years, we did take a year off, when he was grieving the loss of our special friend Diane. When we started back up, I started out with kids and seniors. I could tell Deuce just wasn't happy with it. We then joined the Hospice of Michigan pet program. Our first assignment was magic, he was happy, he settled right into his person, bringing comfort, Deuce and his person "talked", fears, regrets, hopes were shared between them. All the while, Deuce just simply cuddles in and listens. And so our journeys path was carved out for us as a team. Deuce chose our path, not always easy. Matter of fact sometimes its just plain hard, and emotional on us both.

And in the blink of an eye, my little buddy turned 10 this past spring. I won't lie, 10 was a hard number for me, for him, I doubt very much that he knows the difference. He just knows that he gets to go to work (visits) and has fun at school (training). He still loves his walks in the woods, going for rides in the car and playing fetch, and of course cuddling!

I have noticed some big changes in my buddy while he is visiting. Although Deuce is still very much excited when I say , hey buddy it's time to go to work! His little tail wags, he jumps up where his vest and visit bag hang with such enthusiasm the items fall off the hook! He runs to the car, and when we arrive and I tell him we have to "get dressed" he proudly sticks his head toward me so I can get him vested up. But then there's this; he signals me earlier that he is ready to leave, he is more mentally and physically tired from the shorter visits, he doesn't care to do several room visits any more, he chooses just a couple before the signals start.

I think to myself, is it time? Should I retire him? On a few occasions lately when I say its time to work, Deuce, would go lay down, he didn't want to go. Studies and research show that a typical service or therapy dog retire right around the age of 10. I have told myself since day one, when he no longer wants to work or shows signs of dis-interest, we would end our therapy dog journey. Three weeks ago, after a very tough visit, I put his vest, and I.D badge in a drawer, and told him, it was ok, he was now "retired". To be honest, I cried. you see he's my buddy, we have done a LOT of visits together, over 400 visits. He has brought lots of comfort and smiles to many many people, I just couldn't imagine not continuing on this journey without him by my side. But his little brother Ace, just this spring became a certified therapy dog. I figured it must be time for Deuce to hand off the torch.

BUT then we received a call for an end of life visit request. The family was requesting a dog be present during the transition. I looked at the two dogs, and said it's time to go to work. Deuce ran to the hook and looked at me like wheres my vest mom?! and out of my other eye, Ace had walked to his crate! It was settled, Deuce is not ready to retire!!!!! Deuce willingly and happily did what he does best, he hopped right up beside our patient, and waited. Vital signs decreased, breaths became more shallow, family quietly cried, Deuce did not leave his post, I stood off in the corner and watched my little buddy bring comfort to a person who was leaving their beloved family. To watch the amazing power that a dog has to be able to bring such peace to a person, that you can see with science, blood pressure lower, facial expressions show a body starting to relax, breaths no longer a struggle to take, it makes you realize the importance of therapy dogs and the jobs they have.

I do not think he is ready for full retirement, but perhaps we will begin to taper off and only focus on special requests for a bit longer.

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